Will the JVP remain the third party that never made it?
What ails the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)? The question needs to be asked because, fifty years after the party’s charismatic but dogmatic leader Rohana Wijeweera staged his first attempt at grabbing control of the state on April 5, 1971, the JVP is not any closer to tasting power today.
Wijeweera, a medical undergraduate dropout who imbibed more of Communism than Medicine at Moscow’s Lumumba University returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of replacing the ‘Old Left’ comprising of the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP), personified by the likes of N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Peter Kueneman and S.A. Wickremesinghe.
Wijeweera’s first attempt at an insurrection was amateurish. He believed that youth armed with shotguns could wrest control of the country by overrunning dozens of Police stations. Predictably, the plan failed, leaving some 5000 youth dead and earning Wijeweera a sentence of life in prison. Then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike’s kinsman and right-hand man, Felix Dias Bandaranaike successfully thwarted a ‘coup’ for the second time.
Wijeweera tasted freedom after just a few years in prison thanks to J. R. Jayewardene who operated on the principle that anyone who was Ms. Bandaranaike’s enemy was his friend. Wijeweera did run against Jayewardene at the inaugural presidential election in 1982 and finished third.
However, when ethnic riots engulfed the nation a year later, Jayewardene quickly seized the opportunity to ban the JVP which went underground, paving the way for the second JVP insurgency several years later. If the 1971 rebellion was amateurish, the 1989 attempt was equally brutal and ruthless.
That failed revolution cost the country an estimated 30,000 lives. Also murdered were United National Party (UNP) politicians, artistes, government officials and members of the armed forces, the latter targeted selectively in a singularly unwise move that alienated the masses from the JVP.
It was left to Ranasinghe Premadasa and his Man Friday Ranjan Wijeratne to clean up the mess which they did with equal ferociousness. Wijeweera himself was allegedly disposed of summarily without being subjected to the due processes of the law, after he was captured while posing as a planter at an estate in the cool climes Ulapane, nestled between Gampola and Nawalapitiya. Of the Old Guard of the JVP, only Somawansa Amerasinghe survived and that too because he was related by marriage to Sirisena Cooray, a Premadasa loyalist.
The JVP then went underground again, emerging only after Chandrika Kumaratunga arrived on the political scene. Like Kumaratunga, Amerasinghe also returned to Sri Lanka from a self-imposed exile in Britain to revive his old political party. To his credit, he directed the JVP in a new direction, renouncing violence and opting for the ballot over the bullet.
Unfortunately, they were duped by Kumaratunga twice, first when Nihal Galappaththi withdrew from the presidential election in return for a promise of abolishing the Executive Presidency, one of the many promises Kumaratunga never kept.
They were duped again by Kumaratunga who bought time to continue governing by offering several ministerial portfolios to JVPers. At the time, Kumaratunga said she would do a deal “even with the devil”, a thinly veiled reference to the JVP which was widely believed to have ordered the assassination of her husband Vijaya.
The JVP’s greatest success was when they secured nearly forty seats in government by cleverly nominating one or two members for each district on lists led by the SLFP at the 2004 general election. Even after gaining such a foothold on the legislature, they could not however translate that into lasting success.
If Somawansa Amerasinghe was successful in leading the JVP to the democratic mainstream and sustaining them there, he was also spectacularly unsuccessful in establishing the party as an alternative ‘third force’.
The Old Left- the LSSP and the CP- was dead in all but name and had become appendages of successive Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) led governments. There was growing disaffection with the then two leading political parties, the SLFP and the UNP. Yet, the JVP which promised so much with their rhetoric, disciplined campaigns and corruption free candidates have failed to deliver at successive elections.
The mantle of party leadership passed on to Anura Kumara Dissanayake seven years ago after Amerasinghe retired. Dissanayake is more than a generation younger than Amerasinghe and was barely twenty years old when Wijeweera was killed, so his recollections of the horrors committed by the JVP in 1989 would, at best, be vague.
Under Dissanayake too, the JVP keeps clinging on to its ‘also ran’ tag instead of making a real impact on the political equation. The reason for that could be the JVP’s murky past, its refusal to shift from archaic leftist ideology that makes it out of step with today’s younger generation and a harking back to same policies and slogans of several decades ago.
While the JVP has renounced violence for the past thirty years and has practiced principled politics, it is also perhaps relevant that it is yet to offer its apologies to the nation for the atrocities it committed in 1971 and 1989. A significant proportion of the Lankan electorate remembers these events with great clarity and would think twice before entrusting the country’s reins of power to the JVP. The JVP leadership appears oblivious to this reality.
The party also needs to take a long hard look at the policies it swears by. Slogans of imperialist conspiracies and capitalist robber barons don’t evoke the same sense of hatred as they did fifty years ago, when even countries such as China have opted for some market economic policies, albeit with stringent controls.
The JVP must realise that having politicians not tainted with corruption itself won’t win them votes or elections. That is the bitter truth of Sri Lankan politics. It is true that the Sri Lankan voter has been saying ‘unuth ekai, munuth ekai’ to the two major parties for decades- and these parties have now changed from the UNP and the SLFP to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya- but unless the JVP opts for a radical reboot of its policies and acknowledges its errors in the failed insurrections, it is likely to remain the ‘third party’ that never made it.